Two separate sets of Jewish bones, of Jewish skeletons, were unearthed this past week.
One excavation was in Brest, Belarus.
The other — after 37 unbearable years of waiting — was the return of the bones of missing IDF Sergeant Zecharya Baumel, killed in the fateful battle of Sultan Yacoub — the return of his remains to his family, to his nation Israel. The location his bones were taken from is classified.
In excavations of a mass gravesite — if you could even call a pile of bodies murdered by Nazis a gravesite — the remains of over 1,000 Jews, many of them children, were discovered. Especially piercing was the revelation of what seemed to be a female skeleton cradling her baby.
Between the juxtaposition of skeletons of murdered Jews by Nazis and the bones of Zachary Baumel — in this painful, posthumous, silent, dialectical space — lies the story of the Jewish people and the story of the modern State of Israel in its entirety.
Even after the Holocaust and even, thankfully, with a state of our own, the battle never ends. It is still not a foregone conclusion that there is a place for “The Jew” in this world.
Either way, there will be young bones to be buried. Either way, there will be battles, broken hearts and shattered, inconsolable families; skeletons, bones to be buried and lives held in abeyance.
But when the Jewish skeletons unearthed in excavations in foreign lands are in the thousands, including little children, when the piles are bones of anonymous people, once named and loved but now forever lost to history as helpless victims of Nazi terror — against all this is the brave IDF soldier who had a name and has a place, even if, tragically, it’s a place in death. It feels different.
Zecharya Baumel was brought to burial at all costs and never was forgotten.
His name, Zecharya, literally means “remembered.” A name, a life, a hero we all know by name. His bones returned for burial, a proper burial, in a Jewish cemetery, in his homeland. This one act symbolizes how Israel, how the Jewish people, really never forgets its brave soldiers, even one single brave soldier. Each and every one is remembered.
This tragedy of Zecharya and all other missing soldiers symbolizes the cost, the price for the privilege we now have of defending ourselves in our own country, versus becoming piles of massacred, nameless bodies turned into skeletons, cradling babies, shot to death, shoved into pits.
Zecharya, an IDF soldier, gave his life, so we wouldn’t be the piles of the dead of Brest again.
Of course, none of this is any consolation for the tragic life and loss of Zecharya Baumel.
All these years, before this fateful week when the return of Zecharya’s bones and the bones of Brest somehow got intermingled in the news, all these years, we wept, we prayed, we never forgot Zecharya Baumel or his unconsoled family who had to somehow build a life in the depths of abeyance.
Many years ago, one of my teaching colleagues was a sister-in-law of Zecharya Baumel. She shared the pain of his loss; of his being missing, and the searing impact on his parents and family.
When the biblical Joseph is reported dead to his father Jacob, yet in reality was still alive, Jacob’s grief is described: “And Jacob refused to be comforted.”
So it was. The Baumel family has been tormented. Thirty-seven years! A number of years back, when I read the news of the death of Zecharya’s father Yona, the sting was real.
In that moment, Yona’s story ended, suspended in torture. There never was and never would be that sought for moment of closure. Yona Baumel died not knowing. He died unconsoled.
Not that having a dead son to bury is ever any consolation. The bereavement, the loss, is shattering. But all those years, the not knowing-added torture all its own.
Later in the Joseph narrative, when Judah negotiates with Joseph for the release of Benjamin, Judah says: “For your servant (Judah) took responsibility for the youth (Benjamin) from my father, saying: ‘If I do not bring him back to you then I will have sinned against my father (Jacob) for all time.’”
Relief and even joy have been the response to the news of bringing home the remains of Zecharya Baumel.
Is the news sweet? Is it bitter? Indeed it is bittersweet. Zecharya is dead. His father died unconsoled. Unlike Benjamin and Joseph, Zecharya was not returned to his father in his lifetime.
The profound pain of IDF soldiers lost to battle and lost to burial, the soldiers who go missing without trace — the ne’edarim — unable to bring even the most painful closures, the closure of burial and bereavement to their families and friends, has riddled one too many Israeli families and even captured the hearts and prayers of the country itself.
Rachel, the matriarch, like Jacob, also refused to be comforted, as recorded in the book of Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, on High, wailing lamentation, bitter weeping; Rachel weeps for her children; she refuses to be consoled for her children, for they are gone . . . “ To which the following response is heard: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for . . . (your children) will return from the enemy’s land . . . and your children will return to their border.” Ve-shavu vanim lii-gevulam.
To me, this Biblical phrase always carried the hope of the return of the living, not the return of the dead, for a burial, in the land. That is hardly any comfort. But when the angel of death has already come and taken away your precious loved one, at the very least there can apparently be some comfort in knowing and seeing a final resting place. A monument. A stone. An epitaph. A place to go to.
In my generation, stickers with the names of Zecharya Baumel and his fellow comrades who fell in the battle of Sultan Yacoub, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, were everywhere. Their names were on our lips. Then, sadly, Ron Arad was added. Now, since 2014, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin are added.
But to be part of a nation that never forgets, to be part of a nation that values each and every loss in battle — even 37 tortured years later — to know that finally, on some level, there is some closure for the family — as bitter as that is, there is much to be grateful in the return of Zecharya Baumel’s remains.
Now we continue to work toward the day — maybe one day — when there will not need to be any Jewish skeletons or bones either unearthed or returned, be they in Brest, or to Israel.
No prematurely buried bones or skeletons at all.
Just limbs of life.
Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News